Travel

Travelers enjoying lower airfares

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With the economy in distress, there may be no cheaper time to travel than this winter as a sharp drop in demand forces airlines, hotels and cruise companies to slash fares, cut rates and lower fees.

In what may be a silver lining during a season of economic angst, travelers are finding some of the best deals in recent memory, from half-priced resorts to rock-bottom airfares.

"These are glorious times for travelers who have a job and the money," said Chris McGinnis, a travel consultant.

An off-peak, round-trip ticket from Los Angeles International Airport to Honolulu on Delta Air Lines was selling for $244 last week, the lowest it had been in recent memory. No one could recall average fares to Hawaii falling below $300.

These fares hovered at $800 to $1,000 in the summer.

So few seem to be traveling this winter that Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., has been offering three free hotel nights and three days of theme park admission for booking a four-day stay. Some resorts in Mexico have slashed hotel rates by half or thrown in free meals.

It's not unusual for holiday fares to be on sale at this time of the year, and travel is still expensive during peak times, such as the day before Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But with job losses escalating and job security increasingly uncertain, more people are holding back their travel spending, leaving airlines, hotels and resorts with even fewer customers and facing the prospect of another financial crisis. Many families -- if they are traveling -- are taking either Thanksgiving or Christmas vacations, but not both.

For airlines, the drop in oil prices is bringing down fuel expenses, but that might not be enough if the economy continues to slide. Skyrocketing oil prices in the first half of this year pushed several smaller airlines to file for bankruptcy protection or go out of business altogether.

This time, it could be a sharp drop in passengers that grounds some airlines. "It's very bad," said Joe Brancatelli, a business travel consultant who runs the website Joesentme.com.

"I don't see anyone saying that the economy is going to be good next year, and if the economy isn't good, airlines aren't going to have profitable passengers," he said.

American Airlines, the world's largest carrier and the busiest at LAX, said last week that 745,000 fewer passengers boarded its planes in October compared with the same month last year.

It's not just airfares. Many cruises, hotels and vacation packages are cheaper than they've been in years.

"It looks like for January and February, we're seeing the lowest cruise fares since post-Sept. 11," said Mike Driscoll, editor of the industry newsletter Cruise Week.

Since August, he said, prices for cruises in the Caribbean, Mexico and other winter destinations have fallen 8% to 10% on average. On some ships, travelers have been able to sail for less than $50 per person per day.

Norwegian Cruise Line on Friday was offering a 12-day eastern Mediterranean cruise in January starting at $579 per person before taxes. Some Caribbean cruises cost less than $100 for three days, with $200 in onboard credit thrown in, Driscoll said.

Many cruise lines have waived or reduced deposits or relaxed cancellation deadlines.

Luxury Crystal Cruises, which typically charges $250 or more per person per day, has been throwing in free airfare from Los Angeles for some Panama Canal sailings.

Vacationing in Hawaii, always a pricey destination, has become cheaper. You can buy multiday trips for less than $1,000, including airfare.

Last week, giant tour operator Pleasant Holidays began selling three-night air and hotel packages from Los Angeles to the islands starting at $349 per person per day, plus taxes.

"If you look at Hawaii today compared to a year ago, it's less expensive today," said Susan Tanzman, owner of Martin's Travel & Tours in Los Angeles.

Even the rich can pinch pennies. The Four Seasons Resort Hawaii, Hualalai, on the Big Island, has been offering a fourth night free. So instead of paying $725 a night for an ocean-view room, guests average $544. If they spring for an even fancier room, they'll get two rounds of golf and two spa treatments.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's Las Vegas, hard hit by the travel downturn. One hotel in the gambling destination recently offered rooms for $1 a night.

For air travelers, planes are still likely to be crowded because airlines have been cutting flights to slash costs and keep fares high. But empty seats are starting to crop up, and that's alarming carriers.

To fill planes, airlines are going to have to clip fares, analysts said. "From now until March 15, there could be some really unprecedented bargains," Brancatelli said.

More airfare sales are expected this week, and travel experts believe tickets from LAX to New York could return to the days when some airlines offered $198 round-trip fares. JetBlue Airways recently began offering fares as low as $268 for a round trip from Long Beach to New York. Flying to Seattle? It has been as cheap as $74 each way from LAX on Virgin America.

"If I'm seeing $244 to Hawaii, anything is possible," said McGinnis, who also writes a travel blog at the website Youmustbetrippin.com.

Add less crowded airports and fewer delays, and this winter could turn out to be a "golden age for travel," he said. With fewer flights, more planes are getting to their destinations on time, according to the site Flightstats.com, which tracks airline performance.

Farecast.live.com, a travel website that tries to predict the direction of airfares, said travelers who wait are finding better deals. A recent check of airfares found that plane tickets for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays had fallen below last year's levels.

"This is a dramatic change from August and September, when fares were more than 30% above last year," said Nick Leahy, a spokesman for the website.

Looking to travel overseas? Europe is a bargain these days, considering that with lower fares and a stronger dollar, it's about 25% cheaper to take a vacation there this winter than last year, said Simon Talling-Smith, an executive vice president with British Airways.

The airline, which has three daily departures from LAX to London, is expected to launch a major fare sale this week. On Friday, German rival Lufthansa slashed business-class fares from LAX to Frankfurt by half.

"It's a difficult time for us," Talling-Smith said, "but a good time for those who can travel."

Pae and Engle are Times staff writers.

peter.pae@latimes.com

jane.engle@latimes.com

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